Two men involved in the smuggling of more than 100 illegal Chinese aliens into the United States and who then held many of them hostage in the basement of a Prince George's County home have been convicted of a string of federal offenses including kidnapping, hostage taking, and harboring aliens.
Chong Chao Chen, 23, and Chang Han Chen, 27, were among five men who went on trial in late September. The other three entered guilty pleas during the trial, and two testified against their former colleagues.
Chao Chen and Han Chen will be sentenced Jan. 11 by U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin. Both face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.
When federal agents raided the three-bedroom house in the middle-class neighborhood of Mitchellville last April, they discovered 51 people being held for ransom. The victims told investigators they had agreed to pay $20,000 to $28,000 to be smuggled into the United States where many expected to be given jobs and work off their debt. But on arriving, the smugglers refused to release them until the entire amount was paid. If everyone had paid, the ransoms would have totaled about $2 million for the smugglers, prosecutors said. Prosecutors believe the smugglers took in at least $900,000.
Acting on a tip from a relative of one hostage, federal agents raided the house April 5, as well as two other Prince George's County residences, where they seized evidence, and a house in Queens, N.Y., where other illegal aliens had been taken.
Those who testified at the trial described living in squalid conditions for the two weeks they were held captive. In the crowded basement, they were held at gunpoint, forced to sleep in rows and urinate in a can, and were not allowed to speak. The floor was littered with mats, pieces of plywood and sheet rock, clothing and blankets, and the windows had been covered with black plastic and boarded up, an FBI agent testified.
Chong Chao Chen was described as one of the leaders of the smuggling group. Chang Han Chen was among those smuggled into the country, but after paying part of the ransom, agreed to work as an armed guard at the Mitchellville house.
Prosecutors dropped some charges against two other defendants, Luo Xiao Xiang and Chong Li Chen, in exchange for their cooperation in the case. Zai Li Chen pleaded guilty to harboring illegal aliens.
Five other members of the group were arrested in New York and are under indictment there. That case is pending.